Pinotage: South Africa's Very Own Grape

While most noble grapes evolved in Europe over hundreds, if not thousands of years, and now have been cultivated in numerous wine growing regions of the world, Pinotage is unique. In 2009 South Africa celebrated only the 50th anniversary of the world’s first Pinotage wine commercially available; and, were it not for a fortuitous chain of events the grape would not exist at all! Eighty-seven years ago, in 1925, Professor Abraham Perold planted in his garden in Stellenbosch the hybrid seeds resulting from a crossing of Pinot Noir and Hermitage grapes He could not have anticipated that this act would forever be part of South Africa’s wine history, eventually growing to become an unique selling point around the world.

Professor Perold was a fascinating and brilliant character himself, a fourth generation descendant from a French prisoner of war who arrived in 1814. Due to his early academic achievements, Perold received a bursary (scholarship) to study overseas, receiving a PhD in Chemistry in 1904 at a university in Germany. Appointed first as a professor at the University of Cape Town, the Cape Government soon sent him overseas to collect grape varieties which could be established locally. He returned with 177 varieties which formed the core of a collection still in existence at the University of Stellenbosch’s experimental nursery. Perold was appointed as the first professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch and later became Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University.

Unfortunately, prior to his death, he left no notes explaining his reasoning for crossing two well established French varieties, Pinot Noir, the noblest red grape of Burgundy, with Hermitage, a workhorse variety of the Rhone valley. The cross produced only four seeds which were planted in 1925 in his own garden, not the University’s nursery, perhaps to keep them under his personal care. In 1927, however, when Professor Perold left the University for a position a hour north, his former residence was unoccupied for a time and the garden unattended. A young college lecturer, Dr. Charlie Niehaus, by chance bicycled by the day workmen were spading up the garden and saved the four seedlings. The seedlings were replanted in the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College by Prof CJ Theron.

Fortuitously, in 1935 the Pinotage scion wood was grafted onto the new Richter rootstocks, narrowly missing being grafted to older rootstock material that proved to be virus infected and were later destroyed. Prof Theron showed the four grafted vines to Prof Perold and Perold was very enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new variety. At that stage the crossing was still merely known as “Perold’s Hermitage x Pinot”, but the name Pinotage, a derivative from its breeding parents, was clinched by Perold and Theron. (Fortunately, they did not choose “Herminot.”)  One of these grafts performed markedly better than the rest and was eventually selected to become the mother material of all Pinotage vines.

It appears the first experimental vineyard of Pinotage was established at Elsenburg College, since C T de Waal, then a lecturer at Elsenburg and later considered to be one of the greatest red wine authorities ever, made the first Pinotage wine in small casks there during 1941. Since grapes are harvested and fermented to wine in the early months of the year, It seems likely that Prof. Perold would have know of the success of his unique hybrid before his passing on November 12, 1941 at age 61.

Thus Pinotage was born, narrowly survived repeated opportunities at a premature demise, nurtured to adulthood by agricultural academics and a single vine has proven the source for all Pinotage vines in commercial production today. Quite a recent and well documented history in a field where the origins of most grapes have been lost forever. So it is now our pleasure and responsibility to share this marvelous wine with the world.

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